Wine pairings were not a foreign concept for Jon Kohler. As a chef who worked 10 years for a wine distributor, he knew what value pairings could add to a meal.
But it wasn’t until he took a trip with his wife to the French countryside that he experienced a connection from listening, learning and tasting at the same time. They had a special lunch prepared just for the two of them—with various cheeses, beef bourguignon and a selection of Burgundies. “It wasn’t anything elegant,” he says. “It was very rustic, but it was just delicious.”
Kohler knew he wanted to re-create that experience in his restaurant. The magic of that connection could be achieved with any type of food—it didn’t have to be a four-course meal.
His restaurant, Pairings Bistro—which opened in Bel Air in 2009—had that fine dining element, too, but it offered much more. The space now includes a barrel room, wine shop, food truck and, as of last November, a market café.
Next up in the plans is a U-shaped bar that will connect the café and restaurant, with 22 bar seats, wall seating for about 14 people and captain’s tables looking toward the kitchen. The redesign is expected to be complete by July or August.
Although Kohler always envisioned his restaurant concept as small plate pairings, the idea quickly evolved to include full meals. Now it’s come full circle with small plates on the forthcoming bar menu.
Part of the impetus behind the shift was creating more options for the casual diner.
“We don’t want to just be the occasion place,” says manager and bar specialist Adrienne Freimuth. “We want them to come because it’s Tuesday night, they had a soccer game and, you know, they don’t want to go home yet. They just need a quick bite.” Guests don’t always realize that’s an option, she adds.
Kohler says that Pairings, designed by Kim Little of Darlington, captures an unpretentious vibe. Its rustic environment pairs well with dishes such as the French onion soup, garnished with Gruyere, provolone and a baguette crouton, and the Delas Côtes-du-Rhône wine.
The chef’s French influence goes back to his culinary education at Johnson and Wales University and a small culinary school he attended as a boy focused on French cooking in Washington, D.C.
“My mom really dialed in on this newfound love of cooking,” he says. He got the bug helping her bake his grandmother’s recipes—particularly her coffeecake.
His upbringing also influenced him in bringing a local focus to Pairings.
His parents had a 72-acre tobacco farm in Lothian they leased out to farmers, and Kohler always grew produce in their gardens.
“I think I just have a deep appreciation for farmers. I feel a connection with them,” he says. “I still do almost all of the ordering from the farms. I haven’t let that go yet because
I think I just enjoy those relationships.”
In addition to relationships with farms in Harford County, Kohler can be found growing beets for the restaurant at a local farm managed by one of his friends, or microgreens in his garage, along with maintaining a 12-year partnership with the local farmers market.
“If you can find what you need right around you, then why would you want to go outside of that?” Kohler says.
His mindset at Pairings is to plan dishes around fresh, seasonal ingredients with his two sous chefs, Miranda Bengel and Jose Munoz.
“It’s very much a collaborative process,” Bengel says.
For a seared scallops dish in which Bengel contributed the red beet risotto, Kohler had the idea for the roasted golden beets, and Munoz came up with the berry balsamic gastrique sauce.
Munoz, who works on a kitchen staff of mostly women, started as a dishwasher before another chef approached him about learning to cook. He’s been at the restaurant
now for about 10 years.
“If you love it, just listen and learn from everybody,” he says. “They still teach me.”
Here’s another sweet local focus: the ice cream from Keyes Creamery and Broom’s Bloom Dairy for the chocolate-dipped Belgian waffle sundae with candied walnuts, whipped cream and cherry. It pairs best with a Poema Cava Extra Dry.
Inspired by trips to Brussels—where Kohler’s wife grew up—the dessert uses a real Belgian waffle maker.
Pairings staff members also enjoy doing beer and cocktail pairings, too. Freimuth makes infusions and bitters (such as CBD and green tea). Cocktails are usually based on a theme such as flowers or winners of the Preakness.
Customers will often get excited when a new cocktail menu is released and want to try them, Freimuth says. Their loyal base takes pride in the restaurant and supported it during COVID-19.
Pairings returns the favor with a hard-working, tight-knit team, Freimuth says.
“We’re all working managers. Nobody’s above doing anything,” she says. “They know I have their back and they have mine.”
More than anything, however, the Pairings team supports customers by giving them the experience Kohler always had in mind.
“The pairing of food and wine is at the heart of our existence,” he says. “We want our guests to try something new or different—or trust us—but we also know that every guest is different and every experience is different.”